As Legislature rests, Whitmer and teachers press for budget certainty

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks about her infrastructure plan in Grand Rapids, June 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is using a legislative lull to tear into Republican lawmakers for passing budget proposals that she says are “phony solutions.” 

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Whitmer stressed that she’s “angry” and slammed fiscal year 2020 budgets that have passed in recent weeks for not investing heavily enough in her key priorities like transportation, water infrastructure and education.  

The late May sense of bipartisanship in Lansing that led to a deal on auto insurance reform appears to be gone, as Whitmer rattled off a laundry list of complaints. Beyond the fact that legislators have begun a traditional summer break period without any deal on the budget, she says key groups like the education community are left to begin their next fiscal year next week without any certainty as to how much money they’ll have. 

Whitmer signs auto insurance bill with legislative leaders by her side

Neither the House nor Senate budgets include Whitmer’s proposed 45-cent gas tax to raise $2.5 billion annually for road and bridge fixes, nor did they appropriate funds for her Michigan Reconnect skilled trades training initiative, which has bipartisan support

“There’s example after example of how the budgets we’ve seen come out of the Legislature thus far really are dramatically different and don’t focus on the fundamentals of closing the skills gap, cleaning up drinking water, educating our population and fixing our infrastructure problem,” Whitmer said on Tuesday. 

Michigan Capitol | Photospin

Meanwhile, the Legislature is effectively on a summer break with no sessions or votes planned for at least the next two weeks and only tentative session days until September. The chambers usually take a summer break in July and August, but have had budgets completed ahead of those breaks in recent years. 

House Republican spokesman Gideon D’Assandro, however, stressed that legislative leaders continue to discuss budget issues and will work with Whitmer once they agree on their priorities. 

“The House and Senate Appropriations committees and leadership are working right now to resolve the differences between their two budgets,” D’Assandro said. “Once they do that, they will work with the governor to find a common ground.”

Whitmer said on Tuesday that she’s skeptical of that process, known as budget reconciliation. Traditionally, legislative leaders meet with the governor to set targets for budget priorities and then sell the plan to their caucuses. Given the fact that Michigan has a Democratic governor and GOP-controlled Legislature, they have different priorities and, presumably, require more time to hash out a deal. 

The governor noted that the House transportation plan involves exploring a sale of several state assets, which she referred to as a “phony solution” and deemed “a joke.” 

GOP backs down on Gordie Howe Bridge, House springs transportation budget

“I don’t know how they can get their budgets reconciled, to be honest,” Whitmer said. “Neither adds up to a balanced budget and neither of them actually solves the problems that I know the voters across the state are expecting us to solve.”

Leaving the news conference, Whitmer told reporters she was scheduled to have lunch with state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) to discuss budget matters. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey speaks at the auto insurance reform bill signing, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann confirmed that the two leaders had lunch and reiterated D’Assandro’s point that the key legislative members for the budget continue to work, even if there’s no formal session.

“Senators are meeting this week as they continue to work on a roads plan,” McCann wrote in an email to the Advance. “Holding a press conference to accuse the legislature of being on ‘vacation’ is an old and tired political stunt.”

Educational uncertainty

Whitmer and the Legislature have until Sept. 30 to reach a budget deal. The state begins its new fiscal year on Oct. 1, and without a budget in place, state government functions would begin shutting down. 

Jennifer Granholm | Wikimedia Commons

The state went through two short, partial shutdowns in 2007 and 2009 when Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm failed to reach budget agreements during Michigan’s decade-long recession with a Democratic House and GOP Senate. 

Whitmer said she’s hopeful that Republicans aren’t aiming for a government shutdown, noting that she served in the state Senate during the previous two and that they’re not good for anyone. 

So while there are still more than 90 days for a deal to be struck and for the full Legislature to return to Lansing to vote on a final budget, uncertainty looms in the immediate short term for the state’s educators. 

That’s because school districts begin their fiscal year on July 1 and it’s all but assured there will be no budget deal in place by then, which creates frustration and uncertainty for educators and others. 

“To look at the magic number and to know that’s what’s needed and for it not to be there is incredibly frustrating,” said Jeff Whittle, a member of Whitmer’s Educator Advisory Council and a paraprofessional at the Macomb Intermediate School District.

Jeff Whittle, a paraprofessional at the Macomb Intermediate School District at the July 25, 2019 education rally in Lansing | Nick Manes

“It shouldn’t just be frustrating for [school] staff,” Whittle told the Advance during an education rally at the State Capitol on Tuesday. “It should be frustrating for parents and for communities. … Everybody should be working towards that magic number.”

Nancy Coscarelli, a retired school teacher from Lapeer Community Schools, noted that educators tend to live and die by planning and not having a firm budget in place leads to significant challenges in terms of getting classroom supplies and planning general curriculum. 

Whitmer’s proposal to increase the School Aid budget by $507 million has received accolades from several education unions like the Michigan Education Association and the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. 

The House and Senate education budget increases would be $236 million and $342 million, respectively.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a media roundtable on her FY 2020 budget, June 25, 2019 | Nick Manes

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Whitmer acknowledged the uncertainty schools face and noted that it’s a major shift from the previous eight years when the state government was firmly in Republican control and budgets were generally done by June. 

“School boards across Michigan are writing budgets based on what they hope will end up being their budget, not on what they know,” Whitmer said. “This is breaking eight years of culture and tradition that has given them the assurances they need to do right by their kids.”

Road funding looms large

It remains unclear when the Legislature might reconvene to take up a full, reconciled budget. In the meantime, Whitmer is doing what she’s done in the 112 days since unveiling her budget: hitting the road around the state to make the case for it, particularly for her road road-funding plan. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer examines a Highway 131 bridge in Grand Rapids, June 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

On Monday afternoon, the governor stopped in Grand Rapids to tour the U.S. 131 overpass in downtown Grand Rapids just south of Bridge Street. Officials with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) say the bridge is just above “poor” condition.

Walking around the parking lot underneath the bridge shows multiple areas where the concrete is crumbling. Jon Bruinsma, an MDOT engineer, told the Advance that while the bridge remains safe, it’s in need of significant work. 

“It shouldn’t physically scare you, because the bridge is safe,” Bruinsma said. “But it’s a sign that you need more investment on the preventative maintenance side so it doesn’t get to poor condition.”

Whitmer has long maintained that her road funding proposal would keep the state’s roads and bridges from deteriorating further. Speaking with reporters on Monday she said she’s yet to see any other kind of serious proposal. 

Thus far, no legislator has sponsored a bill to raise the gas tax. Whitmer said she’s got sponsors in both chambers “chomping at the bit” ready to sponsor such policy, but declined to identify them. 

She said that until the GOP leadership is “serious,” there’s no point in introducing legislation.

House Minority Leader Christine Greig, April 16, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Last week, however, a group of House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills), released their own partial road funding plan that would raise the state’s corporate income tax and increase taxes on the heaviest trucks that travel the state’s roads. A House Democratic spokeswoman said the plan would raise about $1.2 billion. 

Whitmer told the Advance that she appreciates seeing another plan, but doesn’t believe the proposal put forth by Democrats goes far enough. She added that her gas tax hike would allow for legislators to take one vote, as opposed to piecing together myriad other proposals. 

“I suppose the Legislature can take as many hard votes as they want to to cobble together a plan,” Whitmer said. “What I put forward is an honest solution. … I hope that they come ready to vote for something that actually puts us in a position to fix these bridges across Michigan and to educate our kids and to clean up drinking water.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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